Red kettle worker plays the banjo, not bells

SPRINGDALE — The temperature hovered in the low 40s, and the sky was gray and dreary. But the cheerful notes of “Jingle Bells” — bluegrass-style — pealed out, and busy holiday shoppers entered the Springdale store wearing smiles.

Gary Shipley picks his banjo every day but Sunday in front of the Harps Food Store on Sunset Avenue, making for a unique alternative to the bells usually associated with the Salvation Army’s red kettles.

The shoppers likely don’t realize that the serenades come from a professional musician with quite a resume.

Shipley’s website lists performances with the Harvest Time Singers, Little Jimmy Dickens, Alan Young, Charlie Lawson and Oak Hill, Charlie Louvin, Jimmy Martin, Rich McCready, Spring Water Bluegrass Ultimate, the Misty Mountain Drifters and many more.

He also played behind Margie and Enoch Sullivan with the legendary Sullivan Family group, which received a distinguished achievement award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2005, while Shipley was a member.

Shipley has played the banjo for 45 years, and to prove it, he shows calluses on his fingers in the shapes of the banjo strings. He also plays 26 other instruments — the dobro or resonator guitar is his other favorite.

He was born in Webb City, Mo. “And as for bluegrass, I took two lessons, and that was it,” he said.

“He loves music. You can see it in his eyes,” said Capt. John Robbins of the Salvation Army’s Springdale Corps.

More than half of what Shipley plays for passers-by as he strums for Salvation Army kettle donations are gospel songs, he said. “Most people don’t know the songs I play — or they might not recognize the way they’re played.”

Sometimes he breaks out his voice, and he does take requests. And, sometimes the joy he shares comes back to him.

“It’s very rewarding,” Shipley said. “Some people buy coffee and bring it to me, and I don’t drink coffee. But I do drink hot chocolate.”

Many Harps customers stop and lean against the posts at the entrance to listen for a while, said store manager Ricky Ritch.

“A lot of people come in just to see him,” Ritch said. “A crazy amount of people stop to tell him how much they appreciate it.”

Ritch admits that he looks for reasons to go outside to listen. Perhaps the manager might collect the grocery carts from the parking lot, he said with a laugh. And customers have requested Shipley’s presence at the store year-round.

“When you see what he brings to the table, you can’t beat it,” Ritch said. “He steps it up to the next level.”

“I know we do appreciate the excitement it builds in our customers,” he said. “Who doesn’t like that kind of music? We’ve got Silver Dollar City in front of our store.”

Lyndsey Strong, a spokesman for the Salvation Army, said Shipley’s performances are a fun change from the typical bells associated with donation seekers.

“It’s Arkansas bell ringing. It feels fun and local, and that’s neat,” Strong said.

“‘Ringing the banjo’ — that sure beats the bells,” Shipley said. “I couldn’t just ring the bell. That would drive me bonkers. The banjo — that’s what I do.”

From his nine-hour-a-day post in front of the grocery store, Shipley said he thinks that what he’s doing is important.

“[The Salvation Army cares] so much. They do so much good for people. They house people. They feed people. Without them, some kids wouldn’t have a Christmas,” he said.

Shipley, who is disabled, said he has faced his own challenging circumstances. “I’ve needed [the Salvation Army], but I never took it. I always had family I could turn to to get me set up.”

All donations collected in the kettles stay local, Strong said. The money supports emergency night shelters in Fayetteville and Bentonville, and a free addiction recovery program. It also pays for hot meals, food baskets, gas vouchers and help with utility bills.

Last year, donations in the Northwest Arkansas kettles totaled more that $372,000, Strong said. This year’s goal is $380,000. “Other groups hold a gala. We have our kettles,” Strong said.

She said the kettle program seems to be fruitful in any economy, even in an increasingly “cashless” society. “Many people make it a point to save money in their car at this time of year,” she said.

When he’s not traveling to perform, Shipley and his family attend the organization’s worship services in Springdale.

“I go to the Salvation Army church not because I have to, but because I want to,” Shipley said proudly.

He shares his talent at the services and works with youths, teaching them to play guitar or piano. “When it comes to working with the children, he is always there,” Robbins said.

“[Shipley] is a very good man,” Robbins said. “He’s just an amazing person. He loves God.”

Robbins said Shipley also likes to just sit and talk with people, finding out what’s going on in their lives. And at Harps, he does it without missing a note.

There are some shoppers who look down on Shipley and assume he’s less fortunate because of his service, Shipley said.

“They look at me and treat me differently,” he said. “What they don’t know is, if not for different circumstances, they could be living in the gutter. There’s need everywhere in this society, if they’d just open their eyes and do what they can.”

“If they don’t put nothing in the kettle, I don’t care,” Shipley said of passing shoppers. “That’s all right. I’ll still tell you to have a great day. I don’t want anything from them.”

“I’m just here to watch the bucket and say hello to everybody — you can’t leave the bucket by itself,” he quipped. “I’m here to play the banjo and put a smile on their faces.

“It’s not in here,” Shipley said, pointing to the red kettle. “It’s what’s in here,” he said, pointing to his heart. “That’s what matters.”


Original Story from NWA Democrat Gazette –>